Liberal arts show some muscle

In an era of specialization, some schools find success in the 'well rounded' route

Ramapo College dumped its winning football team. Truman State University chopped its majors and programs from 149 to 42. The University of Puget Sound gave away its law school.

It might seem at best quixotic to toss out a law school just to bolster the likes of English and history. Neither has been a "hot major" for a while.

But even though sizzling preprofessional majors like logistics management may get more attention, a small cadre of colleges and universities have dug in their heels to revamp their curricula along specifically liberal-arts lines.

Reasons vary. Some institutions are on the ropes and trying to revitalize themselves by returning to their roots. Others are doing well, but worry that students are not graduating with the complete set of analytical-thinking skills that a well-rounded liberal-arts major should have.

Also, while the liberal arts may have been a bedrock since Aristotle and Plato, many schools in recent decades have let them slip away in the name of greater "relevance" and more "professional" courses. Now they're finding that a return to that approach can boost their mission - and appeal to prospective students.

"A lot of people are going back into the liberal arts because that's the place where most of the societal values reside," says Allen Splete, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, which represents 450 independent liberal- arts institutions. "When these colleges were formed a long time ago, their mission was to form leaders. The focus on ... job and income is a push away from that."

Now, he says, some are taking a new look at producing a "well-rounded" graduate. Between 50 and 75 schools are trying to push back toward general education after decades of shifting to preprofessional programs.

One such is Ramapo College of New Jersey, a small public school in Mahwah. Facing severe budget cuts in 1992, administrators had to decide between rededicating the school to the liberal arts - or keeping its popular football team.

"A lot of people were upset," says Peter Goetz, director of recruitment and retention. "There was a vibrancy that fall football brings to any campus. I miss it."

Stemming the drift

Still, adding new courses and new professors stemmed the academic drift of the 1980s. And Ramapo's contrarian, laserlike focus on rebuilding the liberal-arts curriculum was key to establishing winning new applicants with higher SAT scores. Ramapo recently won state recognition as the Garden State's only public liberal-arts institution.

"We've refocused ourselves on liberating students from their provincial backgrounds," says Ramapo President Robert Scott, who pulled the plug on football. "Many other state colleges have sought and received university status. People ask me, 'When are you becoming one?' I say, 'No, we're going to be a liberal-arts college, not a pretend university.' "

But that view is hardly universal among students. To many, the liberal-arts degree resembles a dinosaur in an Internet age - witness a three-decade-long slump in enrollment and the number of liberal-arts degrees granted.

George Dehne, a higher-education consultant in New York, reports that more than 50 percent of 1999 SAT test takers indicated a "likely" major in four areas: business, education, engineering, and subjects related to health.

Many traditional liberal-arts schools have dropped core requirements to add more-popular courses. One result has been fast growth in degrees in "transportation and material moving" and "protective services." This has come at the expense of the humanities, some critics argue.

"There is every reason to think that liberal education, however we define it, is in trouble today," warns W. Robert Connor, president of the National Humanities Center near Raleigh, N.C.

In the late 1960s, nearly half of all undergraduates earned liberal-arts degrees, compared with 37 percent in 1995-96. Liberal-arts colleges made up one-quarter of all institutions of higher learning in 1970. By the 1990s, that figure fell to just 17 percent.

But are they enrolling?

Enrollment is still strong at competitive schools like Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan, which one ranking places in the Top 10 liberal-arts schools. But some were forced to close their doors, as did Boston's Bradford College last year.

"We see some of this refocusing on the liberal arts going on in a lot of places - but it hasn't really crystallized," says Mr. Splete of the Council of Independent Colleges. "It's a thread of something, not a revolution yet. Right now there's much more interest by the parent in a values form of education than [by] students."

If that thread is to become a trend, self-examination is needed, observers say. As at Ramapo, the soul-searching that leads to an institutional return to the liberal arts and the dropping of peripheral elements often seems to come at a time of financial and enrollment distress.

At Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn., enrollment had fallen to just 260 full-time undergraduates, and the private Presbyterian-affiliated institution was in "severe economic and academic crisis" in 1989, says president David Hendrickson.

Today, the school has doubled its full-time undergraduate enrollment and is financially steady. The main reason, Dr. Hendrickson says, is the school's return to a liberal-arts core curriculum.

"There was simply no need for just another small, church-related loosely liberal-arts-related college," he says. "If that's all we were going to be, we might as well just close doors and go home."

Hendrickson, who became president recently, says his predecessor gave the faculty a mandate to return to the liberal arts. The faculty chose to institute a strong core curriculum - and nine competencies to be mastered.

"The whole function of a liberal education is to prepare free citizens for effective participation in a democratic society," he says. "With the increase in professionalization of our society and higher education in general, we saw the liberal arts as vitally needed to support a functioning democratic system."

Susan Resneck Pierce could not agree more. As president of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., she was asked in the early 1990s by the board of directors to drop a lot of extras and refocus on the liberal arts. "Everything we've done has been to focus all of our resources - human and financial - on our mission: undergraduate liberal arts," she says.

So the undergraduate business major was redesigned to better fit the liberal-arts tradition. Athletic scholarships were phased out.

The university's valuable law school was transferred to Seattle University in 1994. Now the University of Puget Sound is not really a university at all - "it's a college of liberal arts," she says.

But it's more popular than ever - which Dr. Pierce attributes to its fresh focus. Last year, there were 4,000 applications for 650 spaces, and SAT scores were up. "I think our decision clarified for prospective students and their families what kind of institution we are," she says. "It's really helped us to go back to our liberal-arts roots."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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